Saint Helen: A recommended book, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena

Today is the feast day of Saint Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great. She is the matriarch of Christian Europe and the finder of the one true Cross of Christ in Jerusalem. Here’s a post I wrote before on how Saint Helen found the original cross: it’s a great story.


I’m particularly obsessed with Saint Helena and Constantine because I’m polishing my historical young-adult novel on Saint George, which includes the likes of Saint George, Saint Christopher, Saint Nicholas, Saint Helen, Constantine, et al. It’s the story of Saint George’s coming of age, virtue, and martyrdom (and yes it has a great dragon in it).

It’s a fun novel for young adults and adults. Look for it on amazon after Thanksgiving!

One book that inspired me in particular was Evelyn Waugh’s historical fiction novel Helena. Waugh took the historical early 4th century and fictionalized it. He’s known for his acclaimed bestseller Brideshead Revisited, but I dare say that his Helena is as good as, if not better than Brideshead. Helana novel is a history lesson and entertainment all rolled into one. If you’re looking for a great novel with Christian themes, please read Waugh’s Helena.

Blurb from book:

Evelyn Waugh, author of the internationally acclaimed bestseller Brideshead Revisited and one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, considered Helena to be perhaps his finest novel. Based on the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and finder of the true cross, this spiritual adventure brings to life the political intrigues of ancient Rome and the early years of Christianity.

Helena is the intelligent, horse-mad daughter of a British chieftain who is suddenly betrothed to the warrior who becomes the Roman emperor Constantius. She spends her life seeking truth in the religions, mythologies, and philosophies of the declining ancient world. This she eventually finds in Christianity—and literally in the Cross of Christ.

Here’s the link to the book in Waugh’s novel Helena. Enjoy it!

Question: Have you read this novel? What did you think? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Brian English

    A great book, which I highly recommend. Waugh actually stated he considered it his best book.

  • Mrshopey

    It sounds like a good book. What is a “horse-mad daughter”?

  • Rob Corzine

    Helena is a very different sort of historical fiction. Waugh does evoke the time and place of the fourth century Roman Empire. But he never leaves you to really imaginatively enter into that world. He’s always at your side, nudging the careful reader in the ribs to share a laugh at the expense of self-important intellectuals or effete no-talent artists trying to pass off their lack of ability as refined aesthetic sensibility. Some laughs, he throws in just for the fun of it and because he can (look for the thinly veiled nursery rhyme allusion on page 32). Some of the references are historical “inside jokes” that are funny if you see them but less informed readers will just breeze past. My personal favorite is when Constantine leaves Rome to pope Sylvester, and one of the priests says, “I rather wish we had it in writing;” a second priest replies “Oh, we will” (a reference to the 8th century forged decree known as the “Donatio Constantini”).

    There are a handful of passages that are worth the price of the book all by themselves: the account of Fausta’s demise, the conversation between Constantine and the architect and artist working on his triumphal arch, and the prayer of Helena to the three Magi at the grotto in Bethlehem on the feast of Epiphany, to name just a few.

    This volume is highly recommended, though much different than Waugh’s more traditional biography of Edmund Campion, which has its own sort of excellence.

  • Dr. Marshall, I haven’t read the book, but due to your recommendation, I just purchased it to listen to on my iPod! I’m really excited to read it. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have known about it. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED, Brideshead Revisited! I started to read BR two or three times and just couldn’t get into it. After becoming Catholic and hearing Fr. Robert Barron speak about it several times on different occasions, I tried one more time. Maybe it had something to do with me not understanding the underlying “Catholic” meaning…I’m not sure…but I think it may be one of my favorite novels…that’s saying a lot! I read or listen on my iPod to books…constantly! Thanks for the recommendation! Peace be with you, Joy and your family!

  • Alexis

    I have not read it yet. I just read about this book on Sunday and downloaded it immediately. I can hardly wait to read it. I have a tremendous love for St. Monica as my middle name is Monica and my son’s-in-law birthday is her feast day, May 4.

  • JoeAllen

    I love Waugh’s writing style. He subtly surrounds the conclusion, but never states it; let’s the reader connect the dots.

    PS: I do NOT find the cover for the book HELENA, to be very inviting. Book covers are important.